Monday, May 23, 2016

How to Make White People Laugh, by Negin Farsad

Negin Farsad is a very funny lady.  An Iranian-American who grew up in Southern California, Farsad is a "social justice comedian" who believes making people laugh is far better than killing them.  In How to Make White People Laugh, Farsad tells stories of life as an Iranian-American Muslim female comedian-slash-filmmaker.  And really, when talking about race and ethnicity, I agree with her that "if people laugh, maybe they'll start fewer wars. . . . Laughter is the key to all sorts of conflict resolution."

A large part of her mission in social justice comedy is to assure Americans that Muslims aren't all that bad.  She made a movie called The Muslims are Coming! (check it out on Netflix).  In the book, she describes some of the "street theater" they filmed.  My favorite was standing outside the Mormon temple with a sign reading "Hug a Muslim."  She got some great hugs, with a couple taunts.  I think it's safe to say that despite the loudmouth critics of Islam, everyday Muslims (like the ones who live on my street in the Bible Belt) are welcomed and embraced like anyone else.!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/article_750/poster28n-1-web.jpgI also enjoyed reading about her subway poster campaign.  When an activist group ran a series of ads critical of Islam in New York's subways, one reaction would be anger and demands that the ads be removed.  Farsad chose a different route.  She created a series of posters light-heartedly pointing out contributions of Muslims and, more importantly, showing that Muslims are regular folks.

Like many Muslims in America, Farsad has learned to live among her neighbors in this mix of people that is the U.S.  In How to Make White People Laugh, however, she comes across as someone who still considers herself Muslim as cultural identity, but whose life reflects little adherence to actual Islam.  I was reminded of many Jewish friends I have, who identify as Jewish, but whose lifestyle, diet, moral code, and attendance at worship services does not indicate strong adherence to the Jewish faith.  Far be it from me to evaluate Farsad's religious beliefs based on this book, but I would say in general there is a big difference between someone who is nominally Muslim and someone who follows some of the very conservative groups.

Farsad also sent some mixed signals about Iran.  Of course Iran is a developed nation, with high levels of education, even among women.  The contrast to some of the Arab Muslim nations is stark.  But she still admits that in Iran "repression is in the air" and that "people in Iran are waiting for regime change."  Plus, if Iranians are so nice, it would help if they didn't say things like this:
Mohammad Khatami, the former president of Iran: “If we abide by real legal laws, we should mobilize the whole Islamic world for a sharp confrontation with the Zionist regime … if we abide by the Koran, all of us should mobilize to kill.”
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: “It is the mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to erase Israel from the map of the region.”
Hassan Nasrallah, a leader of Hezbollah: “If they [Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.
So on the one hand, I completely embrace Farsad's message that we should laugh together and live together, no matter our faith, culture, or skin color.  Further, we should make a point to do so: "simply meeting people is the microrevolution that is  your mission."  However, I'm reluctant to accept that Islam is never a threat.  Would I go full Trump and preemptively keep all Muslims out of the U.S.?  No.  But if a devout Muslim from a country known to be supportive of terrorists wants to come to the U.S., I think he or she deserves extra scrutiny.

Sorry, Ms. Farsad, if that offends you.  I really think I would enjoy hanging out with you, and I'm sure I would enjoy your show.  I certainly enjoyed your funny, thought-provoking, and stereotype-busting book.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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